For the month of June, we bring you a double dose of insight as we look into our World Industrial Design Day theme of Redefine Design. We hear from Chelsia Lau, Chief Designer, Strategic Concepts Group at the Ford Motor Company. Ms. Lau tells us how a love of art and a profound appreciation of beauty led to a career in industrial design, how technological advances have changed the way designers work and what she thinks will be driving the future of industrial design.

Q: Why did you become an industrial designer? Did you always know that is what you wanted to do? Did you know what industrial design was growing up? 

A: Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always interested in arts. My artistic sense developed at an early age and was honed through extensive training in portrait and landscape painting. My parent’s restaurant was the first gallery that displayed my paintings. Back then I was not familiar with the industrial design profession but I had a strong notion in my heart that I would pursue something in the field of arts or anything to do with appreciation of beauty. I had the humble dream of becoming an artist and I was determined to travel to Paris someday, even if I needed to work as a street artist to fulfil that dream! That vivid and somewhat romantic picture has remained etched in my mind and kept me energized in all situations growing up.

After graduating from high school, I was exposed to industrial design and I studied in the product design program at the Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute in Hong Kong. After graduation, I enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California to further my study in transportation design. It was at the Art Center that I discovered my passion for automotive design and began to forge my classical fine arts background into my unique design approach.

Q: What was your first design job out of school?

A: I worked for a German company that specialised in collectable figurines for one year before I furthered my design education in the US. My job was to develop design proposals for their products in Asia such as creating a new line-up of fantasy figurines to target new customers, and further expanding on the existing licenses merchandised.  Tasks included concept ideation, feasibility studies, working with manufacturers on prototyping. It was an interesting experience; I realised that design is not just a pretty sketch. I needed to consider many factors to deliver marketable products that resonate with the target customers.

Q: What major changes in industrial design have you observed since you were a student?

A: The tools of our trade have changed significantly. When I was a student, sketching by hand, sculpting 3D models and experiencing through human touch were a focal point of our training and all set a strong foundation for my future career. Nowadays, we can leverage a whole new set of tools from computer aided design, to 3D printing to new ways of quickly and easily sharing information across the teams. The result is an increased efficiency. We can visualise our designs in the virtual space, assess different solutions just by clicking a button and create prototypes in more quickly. The way we share our designs has also changed. For example, an entire portfolio can now easily be shared on a tablet whereas in the old days it required a bulky full size portfolio case.

However, I feel fortunate to have had the benefit of experiencing both these worlds, as the many technological advancements we have experienced in the past years have supercharged the process but really haven’t changed the nature of product development. Design still needs to be about solving problems and addressing unmet customer needs. When we fail to do that, the result is a disposable design, with a very short life cycle.

Q: Have you noticed any changes in the way industrial design is practiced since you entered the field? 

A: Technology has evolved exponentially, and together with it the way we integrate this technology in our creations so that the product can adjust to the user’s changing needs, to best fit his/her lifestyle and to enable him/her to get the job done or make a difference. It has also created a shift in our focus. As designers we can no longer afford to focus narrowly on one product. Instead, we must consider more and more the broader system it will be part of. Each new, individual product we work on should both reduce the complexity of the system and increase the value of all other products within that system.

Q: Does the term industrial design properly describe the profession today? How do you describe yourself when you talk to others?

A: Industrial design is a very broad term and encompasses various fields of design – the common denominator is that they are all based on a human-informed creative process.

I see design as an opportunity to make a positive impact on individuals and even cultures. The industrial designer is a catalyst, whose designs can ignite that change and illuminate our collective visions. We are privileged to be a part of the next creative frontier and we all have a role to play in shaping a better future.

To that end industrial design seems inadequate to describe the complexity of the profession. ‘Industrial’ feels somewhat limiting. At the same time, that very same word is key in keeping our profession grounded in reality: we are not creating art work to please our creative ambitions, but thought through solutions which address concrete needs while providing a compelling experience.

I describe myself as a passionate designer. I believe design profession is a life-long journey; I’m learning and advancing every day. One thing that has not changed throughout the years is that I always maintain my curiosity and am never afraid to challenge the ‘norm’ and ask “why not?”

Q: What should we expect of future industrial designers?

A: New solutions to new needs. People will continue to interact and share information in new ways and will consume products and services in different ways. If we look at the automotive world as an example, we see a world where vehicles ‘talk’ to one another, drivers and vehicles communicate with the city infrastructure to relieve congestion and where people routinely share vehicles or multiple forms of transportation for their daily commute. It is no longer just providing transportation from point A to point B, rather it is a comprehensive mobility solution.

That means planning for alternative models of ownership, of usage, of service and of lifetime needs. In other words, current and future designers will need to address new needs with different design solutions. More than ever, designers will need to leverage technology to deliver innovation that enhances people’s lives and makes a positive impact on society.


About Chelsia Lau
Based in Shanghai (China), Chelsia Lau, Chief Designer, Strategic Concepts Group, is responsible for advanced global design activities at Ford Motor Company. Lau joined Ford in 1992 and has worked on a number of projects including the development of significant concept vehicles, such as the Ford FC5, a fuel concept, and the Mercury MC4 concept – interior. Based on the Explorer SportTrac concept, a project she spearheaded, she led the design of the Ford Explorer in 2006. She was also instrumental in designing the Ford EcoSport in 2004, a small-size SUV for South America, which subsequently won the Brazilian Automotive Press Best Sport Utility award. More recently she took charge of the new Ford Fiesta design localization for the China market, putting in features that significantly added to customer appeal.

She has earned professional recognition and praise for her business acumen and leadership in the field of design. These include being named one of the ‘Top 40 World’s Excellent Females’ in 2011 by U+ Weekly and New York Times, listed in ’25 of Hong Kong’s Most Inspiring and Influential Women’ by the South China Morning Post in 2012, and named ‘World’s Outstanding Chinese Designer’ in 2006. Lau graduated from Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute in Hong Kong, and subsequently from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

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